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Book Notes: Shylock, John Gross; Shakespeare and the Jews, James Shapiro

Lionel Kochan

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Shylock, John Gross (Chatto and Windus, 1992). ?18. Shakespeare and the Jews, James Shapiro (The Parkes Lecture, University of Southampton, 1992). ?2. The complexity of Shylock and The Merchant of Venice has generated a plenitude of interpretations and performances. John Gross has scrutinized this body of literature and theatrical tradition, not so much in order to add an interpretation of his own but rather as the raw material for an essay in the history of the image of Shylock. It is almost true to say that Gross's book is a study in intellectual history. The conception is brilliant and so is its execution. He begins with an analytic account of Shakespeare's sources, then considers the evolution of Shy lock's character within the play, and next ranges over the role of money and credit in Elizabethan England and the preconceptions that Jews and Christians respectively had of each other. The underlying argument here is that this play, more perhaps than any other by Shakespeare, needs to be read as testimony to a certain economic and religious configuration. I think Gross is absolutely right in maintaining that the 268</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes play has to be considered 'in a more-than-Shakespearean perspective'. The second part of the book is devoted to the English and American interpreters of the play, including both the actors and the dramatic critics; and the third part surveys in a rather diffuse way Shylock's contribution to Anglo-Saxon culture and to the demon ization of Jews in the world at large. This is a bit of a rag-bag, illuminated, however, by unexpected aperc,us into the works of Proust, Italo Svevo, and a variety of produ? cers, critics and men of letters. In a curious way, the conception of Shylock enter? tained by any particular individual turns out to be a sort of sign-post to a much broader conception of the individual's attitude to Jews and Judaism. The ambiguities of the play are such that each spectator, reader, producer or critic can read them in the terms that best suit his own predilections. This of course does not mean that the play fails to make its own independent impact and to that extent create a dialectic between itself and the spectator. But it does mean that the play enjoys an autonomous existence - indeed a dangerous one. 'It is still a masterpiece', Gross concludes, when, after scrutinizing the views of coundess other critics, he eventually shows his own hand, 'but there is a permanent chill in the air, even in the gardens of Belmont'. I would describe this book as a superbly crafted blend of literary history and the sociology of culture. Despite its broad tide, James Shapiro's Parkes Lecture, Shakespeare and the Jews, is largely concerned also with The Merchant of Venice, more specifically with the play's relationship to the myth of ritual murder. Briefly, Shapiro sees the play as articulating 'a social anxiety' in England and elsewhere, generated by fancied equivalence between circumcision and castration. Through a process of inversion this is transmuted into Shylock's demand for a pound of Antonio's 'fair flesh'. Thus Shapiro understands Act 4 as the representation of a ritual murder accusa? tion and trial. When the Jew's threat is finally frustrated, 'a fantasy solution' has been arrived at to the political, social and economic contradictions of early modern European society. It is not clear from the lecture whether the source of 'the social anxiety' projected by the Jew is rooted in an emotional or some more mundane set of circumstances. I am inclined to think that Shapiro has tried to pack too much into a small casket. Lionel Kochan</page></plain_text>